My a-ha moment learning Chinese

新年快乐 – Happy New Year everyone, and welcome back to Tim Spricht! This is my first post of 2014 and ends a month-long hiatus from blogging at all. The intention had been to continue writing while I was in Beijing but it quickly became clear to me that that wasn’t going to be possible.

I only had five weeks to spend in Beijing, but I set myself a number of goals: Improve my Chinese, be a tourist, make friends/socialise, stay healthy, and stay connected with back home. After about a week of Mandarin classes it was already a real effort to write at length in coherent English. For example, it took me a number of afternoons before I was happy with my post about Shared Talk. The time commitment was simply too much, and I had to prioritise these core objectives.

Besides this, I found it difficult to find time to think and reflect as I adapted to a new environment and a new lifestyle. I consider myself to be pretty well-travelled, and I’ve lived in Germany twice as an adult, but getting the hang of Beijing consumed me in a way no other place had before.

I didn’t have a kitchen so finding appropriately-priced, nutritious food I was happy to eat every day was an early challenge. I was patient on the subway. I stayed back after class or went to cafes to make use of their superior internet. I was open-minded and talked to everyone at school. I bought a bucket to carry toiletries and do washing, just like my Chinese neighbours. My Chinese had been dormant for nearly two years but I tried my best in class to take in as much as I could, to do the homework, to contribute.

It took only a few days of this to realise it was too much, too soon. Andreas took me aside and we talked through it.

After that, I stopped doing my homework. I ignored new words if they weren’t of immediate use to me. I joined the gym with my German friends from school. I met my neighbours in the hallway and took every opportunity to chat with them in broken Chinglish. Claire from Sydney visited and we went to Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall. I forgot about school for that entire weekend and felt so much better! I relaxed and enjoyed myself. The language started coming to me and Beijing life got easier.

Another week or so passed and I had my first Chinese dream! I was in a strange garden that reminded of Alice in Wonderland when a little Chinese girl came by and talked to me. I spoke back to her and she was shocked that I had understood (which is odd in and of itself as Chinese people usually assume from my appearance that I’m a native speaker). Then her Mum appeared and we chatted about how I’m learning Chinese.

It wasn’t anything exciting, and I don’t know if I ‘thought’ in Chinese, but it was a really special moment for me. I had a lot more confidence that my brain was retaining what it was learning. And then learning and speaking became a lot easier. It was like my subconscious telling me “Hey mate, don’t worry, you got this!” – Neuroplasticity, anyone?

The oldies at the Temple of Heaven, Beijing.
Having a ball at the Temple of Heaven, Beijing. Photo is my own.

Final word: Do you remember any a-ha moments you’ve had learning a foreign language recently? I like to make a big deal out of them, even if it’s just for the added confidence, what do you think?

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